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As Nina Boucicault first established in London in 1904, and as Maude Adams, Mary Martin, and any number of gymnasts and skaters have affirmed in the years since, Peter Pan isn’t just a syndrome—it’s a plum part. One theatrical chronicler early in the century even went so far as to declare playing J.M. Barrie’s fairy-tale hero(ine) “the ultimate ambition of all actresses, just as Hamlet is of all actors.”
Clearly, ambitions change. Today, Barrie’s fairy-infested Neverland, with its pajama-clad lost boys, effeminately dandyish villain, and cross-dressing leading lad(y), tends to be viewed by mainstream audiences as kid stuff and by academics as a window on the soul of a possibly pederastic author.
That the lure of fairy dust still lingers is attributable as much to the tale’s ’50s incarnations as a Broadway musical and a Disney film as to Barrie’s original playscript. Both of those adaptations abridged the author’s more dubious ruminations on gender roles and took pains to downplay the more suggestive implications of that curved prosthesis Hook keeps waving at Peter.
The fact that Barrie was penning his paean to childhood innocence at about the same time Sigmund Freud was analyzing childhood fantasies in Vienna has led many critics to note that the author of Peter Pan was as much an instinctive Freudian as he was a prime candidate for Freudian analysis. It’s not necessary to have read Totem and Taboo to interpret the early passage in Peter and Wendy (the 1911 novel Barrie based on his play) where Mrs. Darling is fancifully described as sorting through the odds and ends that were cluttering up her children’s minds:
Of these, quite the most perplexing was the word Peter. She knew of no Peter, and yet he was here and there in John’s and Michael’s minds, while Wendy’s began to be scrawled all over with him. The name stood out in bolder letters than any of the other words, and as Mrs. Darling gazed, she felt that it had an oddly cocky appearance.
“Yes, he is rather cocky,” Wendy admitted with regret.
Hmmmm. In any event, from the play’s first performances, the leading role has almost always been played by a woman in male drag, initially because having Peter played by a real boy would require casting the other children even younger, and British labor laws prohibited minors under 14 from performing onstage after 9 p.m. Later, female cross-dressing simply became a convention—a sensible one, since it was the surest way to guarantee that Peter couldn’t live out his worst nightmare and “grow up to be a man.” As Barrie wrote to an actress who’d just been cast as Peter in 1923, “either he must be a whimsical fairy creature…or a lovable tomboy; there is no other way.”
In fact, it wasn’t until a 1982 mounting by the Royal Shakespeare Company that a major professional troupe tried casting a man in the role, with decidedly odd results, if Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests: Cross Dressing & Cultural Anxiety is to be believed. “The move,” she writes, “was seen [by critics] as ‘making the play a tragedy’ and ‘elevating it from the ghetto of children’s theater into a national masterpiece.’ In other words…like Hamlet, Peter Pan could be tragic drama, all it needed was the RSC and a star with a phallus. It was a matter of putting the ‘peter’ back in Peter Pan.”
I’m going into all this detail partly to set up, and partly to postpone, talking about the dispiritingly flat and unimaginative—albeit nontraditionally cast—Olney Theatre staging of Barrie’s original, nonmusical play, Peter Pan,
or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. By casting a male in the title role, director Jim Petosa does nominally put the “peter” back in Peter Pan. The effect, however, is merely to diminish the tale’s whimsicality, not turn it into tragedy.
From the moment Jim Dubensky bounds heavily through the Darling household’s French doors, it’s clear the production’s verve is going to have to come from elsewhere. His Peter has energy, but no bounce or impishness. His leaps are exhausting, his innocence a put-on, his voice half an octave too low. And whereas an actress will always appear to be joking if she pouts like a 10-year-old boy, when Dubensky pouts, it’s just pouting.
Mostly though, the problem is that the actor occupies space the way most adult males do. His stage presence simply has more volume than an equivalently sized boy’s would (something to do with bone mass, no doubt), and no amount of wire-assisted flying or reclining upside-down in chairs is going to disguise that fact. Physiognomy counts. A woman could outweigh him by 20 pounds and seem lighter, or be a decade his senior and appear younger. Mary Martin was 41 when she first played the part and had a youthfully carefree quality that the twentysomething Dubensky can’t touch. (In fairness, Martin did start with one big advantage: She didn’t have to worry that each turn of her head would reveal receding temples and a bald spot.)
Which is not to suggest that the leading man is the production’s only problem. Except for Conrad Feininger’s modestly amusing Captain Hook, almost no one in Olney’s Neverland appears to be having much fun. Not even Tinkerbell, who’s played not by a flickering, fluttery sparkle but by a fat, round spotlight that tends to land lumpishly on a beam or a wall and just sit there, festering.
There are brighter spots: Carolyn Pasquantonio’s spunky Wendy and a few of the smaller kids aren’t bad, while Carol Monda’s Tiger Lily whoops and stomps brightly enough to suggest that the actress might make a decent Peter in a conventionally cast production. Still, Petosa stages their games and pirate brawls so peremptorily that most patrons over the age of 9 are going to be bored out of their skulls long before it’s time to clap if you believe in fairies.
To back up these charmless shenanigans, Dan Conway has come up with an uncharacteristically skimpy set, in which a balcony and winding staircase are backed up by lots of strips of turquoise and purple fabric that turn a muddy greenish orange when they’re hit with anything but the whitest light. Rosemary Pardee’s costumes are better, with Captain Hook’s foppish outfit containing the production’s only visual joke that works—a coffee mug attachment that screws onto his hook.
As a child of the 1950s—one who sang along with Carolyn Leigh’s lyrics whenever the musical aired on TV and who still passionately claps for fairies (though for somewhat different reasons these days)—I’ll persist in hoping that there is a place where dreams are born and time is never planned. But for the present at least, it isn’t Olney, Md.